Posted Feb 23 2012 11:04AM
ORLANDO -- Kevin Durant offers that "I don't want to say my first thing is to go score..."
Aaaaaand cue the laugh track.
He's Kevin Durant, averaging 27.7 points a game as he arrives here for All-Star weekend, a season after becoming the 11th player to ever win back-to-back scoring titles, two seasons after reaching 30.1 points as a 21 year old and setting new standards as the youngest scoring champion in NBA history. Such a kidder, this guy.
Of course his first thing is to go score, and if he won't say it, the rest of the galaxy will, from Oklahoma City out in every direction. Durant at 23 years old and 4 ½ professional campaigns turns the scoreboard into a fireworks machine.
What's he going to do? Become a distributor?
Actually, yes. The 2011-12 evolution of one of the feared arsenals of the league is that Durant is much improved as a passer, all the way to where the Thunder consider him a dependable third playmaker to go with fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year candidate James Harden.
Though a modest contribution statistically -- Durant is on pace for a career-best season in assists, but at just 3.4 per game -- the best team in the Western Conference at the break is embracing the contribution that doesn't show up in numbers. Emerging passing skills is an obvious benefit for a player who routinely draws multiple defenders and has other scoring threats on the court.
The Thunder are delighted.
However, the Thunder should be careful.
Not only is Durant one of the gifted scorers of his generation, but he plays without ego. He has always been happy to distribute the ball. Now that he is making strides in that area, he will likely be doing it more. And the more he does it, the happier opponents are.
"I don't want him to be Wilt Chamberlain and say, 'I'm going to lead the league in assists this year,' " coach Scott Brooks said. "We want Kevin to attack until they make him pass. It's simple basketball. If you've got an extra man guarding you, that means you've got to get rid of the ball. Kevin has an incredible ability to put the ball in the basket. We need that and want that to continue to happen, but like I tell him, 'We have to find better ways for you to score.' "
What is realistic for the future? Averaging six assists a game? Seven?
"I think baby steps," Brooks said. "Go to four, then get to five. I see definitely five to six in the future."
Great. There is no negative to a Durant with more ways to win.
Except when there is.
It's a fine line, and it has already been crossed. It didn't even take until the midpoint of the season for Durant to slip too far into distributor mode and retreat from the scorer's mentality that turned him into an immediate NBA star.
"Yeah, I have before," he said. "That's when I kind of snap out of it. Russ (Russell Westbrook) is always telling me to go be aggressive. Coach tells me to go be aggressive. But either way, if I'm passing too much, that's helping give my team confidence, no matter if they make or miss the shot. It's going to come back around to me, I think. It loosens up the defense a little bit. It gives me an opportunity to score points.
"I'm always trying to be aggressive. If I get into the lane, I think my vision is getting better where I can see a guy. If I don't, I just go score. I don't want to say my first thing is to go score, but being aggressive to the rim is something coach wants me to do. But if I see somebody then I can make the pass."
He is trending toward a decrease in shots for the second consecutive season, though, from the career-high 20.3 in 2009-10, his third campaign, to a leveling off at 19.7 in 2010-11 and 19.6 in 2011-12. Kevin Durant should not be leveling off. The encouraging counter is that his scoring is steady with last season, thanks to improved shooting that has him on early pace for the highest percentage of his career.
"Like everything in this league, it's a process," Brooks said. "Kevin has really improved on his playmaking. He's never been a selfish player. He's always been a willing passer. But he was never able to see the passes quickly. Now, that part of his game has slowed down. Like the (Feb. 7 at Golden State), his best passing game, he had like seven assists and he was firing passes across the court where I didn't see. I was like, 'Where's he going? Where's he going? Turnover. Nope. Three-point shot to DC (Daequan Cook).' I think that's the growth he has had in his own game. He's going to be one of our best playmakers eventually."
Which is great. Nothing changes the fact, though, that Kevin Durant is taking fewer shots as he reaches his prime, and that can't happen. Because everyone will say his first thing is to go score.
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